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Interview with Susanna Moore

Susanna Moore’s memoir, Miss Aluminum (2020), takes its title from a trade show at the New York Coliseum in the late 1960s, where a 20 year old Moore, wearing a silver dress, silver stockings, and silver high heels, carrying a silver trident made out of cardboard tubes wrapped in tinfoil and pasted with silver glitter, handed out brochures advertising the benefits of aluminium masts and hulls. After the trade show, she goes to a dinner, still silver from head to toe: ‘The men on either side of me, both in blue yachting blazers with crests on the pockets, were polite but not particularly thrilled to be sitting next to a dazed twenty year old girl with streaks of glitter on her face.’ 

 

Moore’s memoir is about what it was like to be that dazed twenty year old girl, beautiful and brittle, whose glittering outer shell did a mostly adequate job of obscuring the messy reality of her childhood and adolescence. The oldest of five children, Moore grew up rich and happy-ish in Hawaii, with a troubled, glamorous mother and a distantly benevolent physician father. The relative peace of her childhood ended when she was 12, with the abruptly shocking death of her mother and her father’s hasty remarriage to a vicious, wealthy woman with a child of her own.

 

Moore ran away from Hawaii and her stepmother as soon as she was able. She became a successful model and then a script reader for Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, attended dinner parties with Audrey Hepburn and went on holiday with Joan Didion. She also became a celebrated writer, the author of seven novels and three works of non-fiction, all of them written with an elegance and a lucid precision that seems to sit almost at odds with the expansive messiness of her themes. Her first three novels – My Old Sweetheart (1982), The Whiteness of Bones (1989) and Sleeping Beauties (1993)   are set in the Hawaii that Moore grew up in, with protagonists whose backgrounds have a lot in common with her childhood and adolescence. In the Cut (1995), her fourth, was a departure – a violent psychological thriller set in New York, about an English lecturer, Franny, who gets pulled into a murder investigation. In the Cut made Moore famous. 26 years later it still feels transgressive, and is still one of those books that people press on each other with a determined look in their eye. In almost all of her work, Moore’s attention alights on what the world asks of women, and what it extracts from them without asking. She is interested in the gaps between the façade and the facts of the matter, in the difference between how women see themselves and how they are perceived by others. I spoke to Moore last year about Miss Aluminum, her novels and their reception, her students (she teaches at Princeton), and the advice she wishes Audrey Hepburn had given her.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I wanted to start at the end, with Miss Aluminum, which covers a specific period of your life: childhood, adolescence, and then those ten years in Hollywood. Your first three novels cover some of that same territory. What does non-fiction allow or ask of you that fiction doesn’t?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— I started on the memoir because friends had been encouraging me to write about that period of ten years when I was in Los Angeles, not because my life was so particularly unusual but because Los Angeles in the late Sixties and Seventies was particularly vivid. When I finally did, I was determined not to write about my childhood, because I was tired of telling stories about it. I had done it so much in the first three books, and even in subsequent articles. It seemed to seep into my work quite a bit. I assumed readers were tired of it, too.

 

But when I started writing about my time in California, I realised that I couldn’t leave out my childhood or the story of my mother because if I did, many of my decisions, a lot of my behaviour, my view of the world, my depression, my breakdown, bad decisions, good decisions, had no context. You needed to know what had happened to me in order, I suppose to put it coarsely, to like me.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What do you think it is about that time in Hollywood that people keep returning to, or that they find so significant?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— It was the end of an era, one in which fantasy played a large part, fed by movie magazines and fan clubs. And fed by secrecy. The publicity allowed by the very powerful studios was tightly controlled. By the Seventies, that had changed. Directors were more powerful than studios and movie stars, and they were not particularly glamorous. There is a book by a woman named Jean Howard of photographs of the many pool parties and dinners and Malibu picnics in the Forties and Fifties, everyone dressed rather formally although beautifully, in which relationships are implied rather than revealed {Jean Howard’s Hollywood: A Photo Memoir (1989)}. The photographs are all on the surface, nothing intimate, nothing illicit, which of course allows the imagination full play. The only hint of naughtiness is photographs of women in dresses who have clearly been pushed into a swimming pool to great hilarity.

 

I remember inviting Jack Nicholson to {the L.A. society hostess} Connie Wald’s for dinner. And he would say, ‘Oh no, do I have to go to that old lady’s house with all those old people? And of course, the old people to whom he referred were Jimmy Stewart and Audrey Hepburn, among others. Jack had already entered a different Hollywood: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, lots of drugs, road pictures, movies made solely on location. He had already removed himself or was removed from that world.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In a lot of your work, there’s this kind of preoccupation with how much memory is to be trusted, that memory is so individualistic as to be unreliable. {From In the Cut: ‘I think memories are like dreams. Not reliable proof of anything. I can’t prove a memory any more than I can prove a dream.’}, Could you speak about that a bit?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— It’s arbitrary, and it is unreliable, which all of us know because of conversations we have with friends or relatives who have shared an experience with us. This became very clear to me when I finished the memoir and I sent it to my brothers and sisters, and some friends who appeared in it. I told them that if there was anything in it they objected to, I would change it or even take it out. Nobody asked me to take anything out, but there were many people who had completely different memories of a specific event than I had, which completely fascinated me.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I saw a televised interview with Charlie Rose you did in 1995, just after the publication of In the Cut, where you said that there’s something about your writing that just makes the reader decide unequivocally that the protagonist is you. I sometimes think that this happens to women more than it does to men. I don’t know if you agree with that, but I wanted to ask why you think it happens so often with your work?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— I do think it happens more to women, and it’s another example of a kind of intellectual diminishment of women in that it assumes that women can only write about themselves. I have heard writers say that no woman could ever have written, say, War and Peace (1867) because they can’t imagine or encompass great historic events. So, there’s that. The other thing is I unknowingly encouraged the assumption that all of my books are about me, because the first three books are autobiographical. The later books are not about me, and In the Cut was not about me. Although with In the Cut, I think it was quite titillating for readers to imagine that I was writing about myself – it made it more erotic, it made it more exciting, it made it more shocking.

 

It was distressing for a while, especially in the reactions that I received from men, who thought I had a certain decadence and dissipation and availability. It was as if I had joined a select male club in which I could speak coarsely about women. Men would call my attention to another woman’s breasts. And I would say, ‘I’m not your buddy, I don’t want to talk about her breasts.’

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Throughout the Charlie Rose interview, he kept insisting that you are Franny, that Franny is you. {In In the Cut, Franny, a teacher, falls into a relationship with a New York detective. As he investigates a murder case, they have various erotic encounters. At the end of the novel, Franny is killed.}

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— It was just awful, that interview. It was considered quite helpful as a writer or as a public person to be interviewed by him. Later, he lost his job and was vilified because of accusations of horrible sexual harassment, which had a certain irony. That interview… he was harassing me. It was very, very uncomfortable. He was flirtatious.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— It’s quite uncomfortable to watch.

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— Yes, I tried to watch it a few years ago and couldn’t. Right before the interview – I don’t know if he meant to unnerve me or he just couldn’t help himself – but he whispered to me, ‘I just want you to know I share your fantasies.’ Of course, he meant my sexual fantasies which he assumed I had depicted in the book, which I had not. I have no fantasy about handcuffs.

 

Maybe it was something he did, a technique that I know interviewers use to throw you off a little, so that your answers are less banal and conventional, to rattle you a little. It did rattle me. In the little part of the interview I saw I appear very stiff. I’m not relaxed.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— There’s a bit at the beginning of In the Cut where Franny’s talking about what her students like and what they don’t like – they hate Ernest Hemingway, and they’re freaked out by irony. And then she says that she considered giving them V. S. Naipaul to read, ‘but I decided that they would be so sensibly outraged by the beating, murdering and dismemberment of women that they might not be able to see the intelligence in the book.’ Was that something that you worried or thought about, with the reception of In the Cut?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— Well, of course that was ironic. Nothing in a book is accidental, even if the writer is not conscious of it as he’s writing. It’s all deliberate. But did I worry about that? No. I should have worried more about how people were going to perceive Franny’s intentions, though. I was surprised that some readers thought Franny was seeking to be killed by violent preferably erotic means, but that was naive of me. Readers will always see what they want to see, but it is the writer’s responsibility to make sure, as much as is possible, that his or her intentions are not open to misinterpretation. I wish I had made it clearer that Franny is neither masochistic or suicidal.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Was that a common response, that Franny’s intention was to get murdered?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— Not many people saw it that way, but enough. Usually men, who were rather excited by it, eroticised by it, they thought it was very sexy. They liked that dynamic. I was appalled by the sadism of it and the obvious fantasy on the part of the person speaking to me, that this was the sort of erotic relationship that he wanted or liked. This was made clear to me in their assumption of a particularly masculine intimacy which the book, in their view, allowed them. It was evident in the way certain men began to speak to me about women, assuming that I shared their misogyny or at best their desires. The book was also intimidating for some men, who rather revealingly told me that they would never dare ask me on a date after reading it.

 

The thing that happens to me is that I fall in love with my characters. I fell madly in love with the woman in The Big Girls (2007) who kills her children. And I suppose I was offended on Franny’s behalf that someone would think she was trying to get killed.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Something that’s often missing from discussion of the In the Cut, I think, is how funny Franny is. Pauline, Franny’s amazingly glamorous best friend, is really funny too. I’m thinking of that scene where she’s talking to Franny about her clothes and she says ‘Your pants have pleats in them’ as if they are self-evidently the most godawful things in the world, and Franny says well what’s wrong with pleats and Pauline says something like ‘If you don’t know what’s wrong with pleats, you’re too far gone for me to explain.’

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— She’s based a little on my sister, my younger sister, who suffered greatly from our stepmother’s cruelty, in part because she has that quality that Pauline has of speaking out, not holding back her opinions. Not being easily seduced by charm. My sister is and was always quite wary and suspicious of charm. She would stand up to my stepmother, at least in the beginning, while the rest of us were just cowed and terrified. Part of that came from her personality which was not defiant, the way I was, but she was more willing to stand up for what she believed in, while I was willing to stand up for whatever caught my fancy in the moment.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In Miss Aluminum, you write about your stepmother quite obliquely. The effects of what she did are taken apart and how she hurt everyone is discussed, but it seems as if you’ve chosen not to write about what she actually did?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— First of all, it was so gothic and so extreme, her cruelty. We had lots of beloved pets as children, three dogs and birds and a cat, a chicken, we were very attached to our animals as children. Not long after she came, we woke up one morning and they were all gone. They had been killed or given away or drowned or – we never knew. We searched for them. It seems as if we were always searching for something, our mother and then our beloved dogs. And to write about things like that… it’s just too much in a way.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You’ve done something similar in Miss Aluminum with the parts that are about your first husband, who was violent. What he did to you is almost relayed to you by other people. You write about him moving towards you to hit you, after you told him that you wanted a divorce, but the rest of what happened takes place at a kind of remove.

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— I think part of that is probably style. My editor and publisher, Sonny Mehta, who died recently, used to say to me after reading a first draft of a novel that the writing was too cool, too detached. Too subtle. He was often right, and I would try to make the book less cool. I think to describe the beating, I mean – how to describe the beating. We all know what a beating is like, I think. It was not particular. He wasn’t wearing brass knuckles. I thought to describe it was not necessary.

 

It’s the same with writing about sex. In In the Cut, I don’t really describe how people feel, I just describe what is happening. And that was a very conscious decision because I read a lot of erotica, although I’ve never, to this day, seen a porno movie which people tease me about, especially my students. Pornography, even before its accessibility through social media, has always been available. That I have never watched a porno movie is an exception among my friends, and now particularly among my students who view pornography, along with sex tapes and erotic selfies, as commonplace. I decided that what was off putting, at least for me when I was reading erotica, was the description of how people felt and smelled and touched each other. And I thought, What if I just leave all that out. It seemed soft to me, slightly squishy.

 

As it turns out it was a fortuitous choice, because the result was that it allowed people to more easily imagine what was happening and to fantasise. The blankness of it, although I’m very specific about what’s happening, allows people, particularly women, to enter into it. It allows the reader to supply his or her own memories, sensations, observations and sensuous responses – smelling, hearing, all that – from their own sexual experience. They could then transfer it, or transpose it. I had no idea that would happen.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

In the Cut has such a committed following. So many women have recommended it to me and I’ve done the same thing. What do you think it is about this book in particular?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— Well, it’s different now than when it was written. It was published in 1995, more than 20 years ago. There were certain taboos – female masturbation being one of them. There is still very little written about female masturbation. It’s as if it doesn’t exist. Or shouldn’t exist.

 

The tone of the book was deliberately shocking. I had just written the three Hawaiian books, which now seem to me very young, a little eager to please, a little soft. I had begun to be known as a woman’s writer, my subjects children and motherhood, which I found limiting.

 

So In the Cut was very deliberate. There hadn’t been a lot of erotic writing about women that was not devised as either pornography or perversion, like The Story of O {the 1954 erotic novel about a woman whose submission to her lover becomes more extreme as the book progresses}. I thought, Well, I want to write about sex, although I didn’t know how I was going to do that. I read a lot of pornography in the hope of at least discovering what not to do. That seemed to work. When the book was published, I  received letters from women who said they wish they’d been warned about the book as they had orgasms in public places, on airplanes for example, which of course made me laugh although I’m not sure I believed them.

 

I think the book now has a following because women are allowed, if not encouraged to speak up about sexual aggression and harassment. What it is to be a sexual being. Franny’s openness about her sexuality can be inspiring for women.

 

It’s not unlike Miss Aluminum in that way. In both books, there are no apologies, which was intentional on my part. I think that gives women a kind of assurance about themselves. But In the Cut is very, very dark, even aside from the ending. I’ve worked almost all my life as a volunteer – I’ve worked in a women’s prison and a women’s shelter. And of course I was very aware of the statistics about male violence against women, so the book is also enraged. The message it conveys is that they’re going to get you either way. If you wear hot pants into a bar – they’re going to get you. If you sit at home with your cat, and you never go out – they’re going to get you.

 

One day I was riding in a police car with two New York detectives who noticed that I was anxious. I told them that my daughter was late walking home from school and that I was worried that something had happened to her. I said that she was very pretty and tended to attract attention. They said, ‘The most rape cases we deal with are old women who live alone and are attacked in an elevator on the stairs of their building. Not pretty girls on the street.’ That shocked me, and was a lesson.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— A kind of rage does come through in the book, and I think there’s something significant for a lot of women about seeing it articulated so clearly.

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— The other thing is that I changed over the course of writing it, and as I got older. When I was young I was extremely defiant of the rules imposed on women – don’t go to the motorcycle bar in hot pants, be careful, don’t go to a man’s apartment, don’t flirt with strangers, don’t hitchhike. It so angered me that in fact I did all those things, and quite deliberately, and at some risk, and sometimes found myself in danger. My attitude would have been: Don’t tell me what to do, it’s not my fault if you rape me, it’s yours. As time went on, I adopted a much more cautious view. I felt that women did have to accommodate the culture, for their own safety, as much as it might infuriate them. If men were killing and raping and harassing women, women had to take steps to prevent it, rather than to defy it.

 

As I was writing Miss Aluminum, I kept a list in my head of the people to whom I wished to apologise. All of them men, of course. I don’t think I have ever behaved particularly badly to other women, but certainly to men, I behaved in ways that that were perhaps not as wise or as kind as they might have been. And then I realised that most of the men on the list were dead. So, I am left with my regret, which is something that I tend to cherish anyway. I certainly would not apologise to Oleg {Cassini, the fashion designer. Cassini raped Moore when she was 21, while she was modelling for him at a runway show in New York}. It’s not that I would necessarily have done things differently, although I wish I’d done them better.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— There’s a preoccupation with courage in a lot of your books – your characters think about it a lot, and it’s something they aspire to. What did being brave mean to you when you were growing up?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— In its most elemental sense, I think it meant not being a girl, not being female. As a teenager, I was very outspoken, always speaking my mind, sometimes being thrown out of class. All of that was a kind of bravery, certainly defiance, and a refusal to be intimidated. There was a story I left out in the memoir, about one of my teachers in Honolulu, who was very kind to me – an English teacher. When I was sent to my grandmother in Philadelphia after graduation, he followed me, showing up one afternoon at my grandmother’s little house. He took me to dinner. I wasn’t fully aware – although I should have been, I was 17 – that he was in love. He behaved very well and soon returned to Honolulu. A friend wondered why I had left that story out of the book, and in part it was because despite my defiance, despite my awareness that being a girl was not all that it should have been, it was really men who saved me – men who behaved in ways that were unwise but whose friendship was lifesaving for me.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— In your memoir, and I think in your fiction as well, there’s an aversion to self-mythologising or self-pity of any kind. Where does that matter of factness come from, do you think?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— It’s interesting, thinking about the turmoil and distress that is occurring here and in other countries over what some of my friends – liberal friends – say might be false accusations that ruin men’s lives. Professors who are dismissed without evidence or more than an accusation of wrongdoing. They complain that women are not taking responsibility – again, Why did you go to the apartment? Why after he put his hand up your dress, did you go to dinner with him? Why did you send him those emails? I of course understand why. After all, I showed up for work with Oleg Cassini and later was in a movie for which he designed the clothes. There is a backlash now, which I think is occasionally valid, although often disregarding of complexity. What did she think was going to happen? Why didn’t she just tell him to fuck off and never talk to him again? 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— There’s a bit in Miss Aluminum where you describe what you watched on TV as a child in Honolulu, mostly black-and-white cartoons from the Thirties, and you say that this ‘wasn’t out of any aesthetic precocity, but because Honolulu was not yet a rich enough market for Disney’. How do you think growing up in a place like that, at that time, informed your tastes and sensibilities?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— First of all, because there was so little to do in any commercial sense that reading became a means not only of escape, but a way to experience the world. Reading was entertainment, as well as a way to be alone. Books were an enormous part of my life as a child, and my brothers and sisters were readers too.

 

When I first went to the American South, following the Mississippi River because I was obsessed with the writing of William Faulkner, I immediately noticed certain similarities between my childhood in Hawaii and that of the South. One of them, the social and cultural disparity between whites and non-whites, but also the sense that there was a secret life just below the surface. Black life, African-American life in which everything that was of interest to me could be found: food, music, dance, expressive language. Even a kind of defiance and animation and energy. I was interested by that.

 

I had a certain confidence in childhood that there was not much a boy could do that I couldn’t do as well. This was a tremendous advantage, even if a short-lived assumption, and gave me a confidence that I might not otherwise have had if I had been limited to playing with dolls.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You said when we first started speaking that the reason that you chose to include your childhood in Miss Aluminum was so your decisions were more comprehensible to readers. Did writing the book make them more comprehensible to yourself?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— What I saw as I was writing, and that other people noticed and brought to my attention as well, was how, for someone who was so defiant and obsessed with courage, I was willing or maybe even needed life to happen to me, rather than my causing it happen. I hesitate to use the word passive because I don’t think I was passive, yet I became aware when I was writing the book of a certain ease, a certain willingness to let life happen to me, combined with good fortune. Perhaps the word ‘passive’ is the right one, although I must feel a little guilty about being passive, or a little confused by it, because I attribute this behaviour to something else: an inability to anticipate the future, since everything could change in a profound, destructive way, in a moment, like my mother’s death. I had no plan, no goal. Even now, I live in expectation of imminent disaster, if not death, a fear which drives my daughter to distraction. If I don’t hear from her for a few days or she doesn’t send me a photograph of the children, I’m convinced they’re dead. It’s completely irrational, I know that, which makes my anxiety worse… She knows very well how I think so sometimes she’ll leave a message: ‘Mother, I’m not dead, the children are fine, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ Our mother’s death was very traumatic for me and my brothers and sisters. My adult life does not make much sense, nor do my books, if you don’t know that.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— There’s a wonderful scene in Miss Aluminum where Audrey Hepburn corners you at Connie Wald’s house and says she has some advice that she simply has to give you. The advice turns out to have a quite limited application. {Hepburn says: ‘You must always wear shoes the same colour as your hose. It means everything. It has been my secret for years.’} But I wanted to ask you – what did you imagine she was going to tell you?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— Of course I idolised her like everybody else, although I had begun to have certain suspicions that she wasn’t that smart. I was around her quite a bit because she was living at Connie’s and I was at Connie’s almost every day. She was wonderful, but not particularly quick. I was expecting someone more profound, someone who would share her illuminating experiences with me. I was a bit naive.

 

I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but you could make the critical argument that the book {Miss Aluminium} consists of the lessons I learned growing up and as a young woman. Another lesson was learned when my grandmother sent me off to the ball in Philadelphia dressed like a princess. {Moore writes: ‘When I walked into the crowded, noisy ballroom… I saw that a terrible mistake had been made. Animated young women, tousled and tanned blondes in strapless, short, colourful dresses were already dancing.’}

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What was the lesson there?

A

SUSANNA MOORE

— We didn’t know anything of… high society. Only what we gleaned from magazines and movies, which had little to do with our more prosaic, certainly modest experience of the world. Later, when I worked at Bergdorf’s dressed in {a wealthy neighbour} Mrs. Kaiser’s very expensive clothes, people thought I was a rich girl, when in fact I couldn’t afford lunch. I learned then that clothes are a disguise, and sometimes a misdirection.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What do you wish Audrey Hepburn had told you? What would have been a good piece of information to impart to you at that age?
A

SUSANNA MOORE

— I suppose I was hoping that she would tell me something revelatory, what it was like to be Audrey Hepburn. I don’t think she had any idea.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

lives in Cape Town. She is working on a book about the global water crisis.

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